South Africa’s Higher Education – What We’re Not Talking About

There’s a great deal being written about the fees protests at universities and all the news around it. Whether fees can be reduced, or eliminated completely, remains a major topic of discussion. I’ve written one or two things about this myself, but I’ve purposely stayed away from commenting on any of the recent fees news and events in the last few weeks. Not because I’m indifferent, but because when I take a step back, I see far bigger problems which we’re not really talking about. The more I read into education in South Africa, the more I change position on the feasibility of free higher education. I think we’re all missing the point a bit. So while Feesmustfall grabs headlines, there are two major things we’re not talking about, which we should be.

The first problem we seem to be conveniently ignoring is that we’re failing our school children on an epic scale.

There were 1,1 million learners who started school in 2002, yet in 2014 there were only 550 000 matrics. This begs a massive, massive question that should be at the forefront of our public dialogue. Where did the 550 000 other learners go?

A recent study by the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) showed that only 3 in 10 public schools have a library‚ and only 4 out of 10 have a computer facility. Only 18.3% of schools have a science laboratory‚ while 57.8% have sports facilities. Numeracy rate test scores show that at Grade 9‚ just 11% of children are numerate to the required standard. Would we really scrape together billions for universities while we see this at schools?

It gets even worse, a World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness report for 2015/2016 showed that in terms of the level of quality of science and maths education in schools, South Africa was ranked 138th out of 140 countries. The bottom three in the world.

Department of Higher Education stats show that throughput rates in South African higher education averages between 15% and 21%. Putting this into perspective, around 4 out of 5 students who commence a degree don’t graduate. In the bigger scheme of education, if you took 100 children in South Africa at the beginning of Grade 1, only 4 of those 100 would eventually complete a degree.

When only 14% of the learners who started school actually qualify for university, why is free higher education the number one discussion point? The irony, and the real problem that nobody seems to understand here, is that our schooling system is so bad that an extremely low portion of disadvantaged matriculants are even able to qualify for university. Also, how do we tackle the fact that the majority of university students don’t even graduate? So if we did render free higher education, for the most part, would it not a giant waste of money?

Don’t get me wrong, I think there are major issues with the cost of higher education which do need addressing. I think there is also a moral case for giving gifted disadvantaged learners with the right attitude a chance at higher education. But the quality of the schooling system is so poor that it makes a mockery of the adage that basic and secondary education is a right. The right to poor quality, bad infrastructure and ultimately a qualification that does nothing for you. That isn’t much of an appealing right. So making general access to universities cheaper while not addressing the shambles of the schooling system and schooling output is a bit like spending big money building a fancy new roof while the house’s walls are crumbling.

If university fees are decreased, the protests of the future will more than likely revolve around increased access and higher numbers in the institutions. To achieve increased access, standards will be dropped. Academics will have to service and teach more students. Revenues vs running costs will be squeezed to breaking point, and your level of quality will almost certainly drop. In fact, it already is. A QS World University Rankings survey of universities shows SA universities already falling. Year to year UCT dropped 20 places and is now ranked 191st. This is a fall of more than 10% in one year. Wits dropped 28 places and are now ranked 359th. The University of Pretoria fell from the 501-550 band to the 551-600 band. Rhodes dropped from the 501-550 band to the 551-600 band. Only Stellenbosch can hold their head high, breaking into the top 400.

The second major problem we’re not talking about is the question of whether a degree really is a good investment. I don’t think it is anymore. In fact, it might be a very bad investment when you think about it. We’re trapped in this mindset of a university degree being the only path to employment and career success. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development in the UK, 59% of graduates never even end up working in their chosen careers. In a UK study this year the Institute for Fiscal Studies found 23 universities whose average male graduate earns less than those who had not been to university at all. Imagine being a student who’s just graduated with R100 000 in debt and ending up working in a job unrelated to the degree. It starts looking like one of the worst investments you could make.

In the past 5 years the number of graduates coming out of university has increased by 25%. Over the same period the unemployment rate has gone up. We’re not exactly creating a great deal of new jobs. The world is moving as unprecedented speeds. Let’s be honest, universities aren’t exactly fluid, dynamic institutions moving daily with the most current trends in industry and the workplace. This is why the bureaucratic, archaic nature of universities will let thousands and thousands of graduates down, because they’ll more than likely continue down this path of theoretical knowledge, disconnected from the real world. Don’t get me wrong, the role of the university in progressing knowledge at the highest level will still be a vital one. I’m however referring to the base students at the ground level.

They’ll more than likely continue testing knowledge and whether one can pass an exam rather than actual competence – i.e. can they actually do the tasks that would be required in the real world job? The high dropout rate in South African Universities also illustrates just how dysfunctional these traditional methods are at keeping students engaged and successful in their studies.

A 2013 Oxford study reported that work automation will put 47% of existing jobs in the U.S. at “high risk”. This means that around half of all U.S. jobs will be replaced by machines in the next 20 years. uses 15 000 robots in their warehouses to keep up with supply and demand. There are hotels in Japan where 10% of the staff are people, and the rest are robots. The robots greet you at reception, they carry your bags, deliver room service and many other functions. Some companies have artificial intelligence security guards which use visual scanning to detect differences in images and areas from one moment to the next. This is what governments don’t understand when they keep increasing the minimum wage – all they’re doing is incentivising companies to automate and use technology to minimise the number of humans needed. Machines are cheaper once the initial investment is over, they cost less to maintain, and generally give HR fewer problems. Closer to home, Pick n Pay have recently tested automated cashiers. Whether this develops into a trend remains to be seen.

These seem like disturbing pieces of information about the future of jobs in general, but this is the point – the world moves on. For many of the jobs currently disappearing, alternative jobs will be created. For example, in 1870 the Agricultural sector in the US employed 70% to 80% of the working population. Today it’s less than 1%. This is why change management, adaptability, critical thought and attitude will become such essential elements of future graduates.

Traditional education as we know it, as an industry, is in in the decline phase of its life cycle. It’s probably positioned similar to that of the fax machine at the turn of this century, or the metered taxi driver about three years ago. The successful education of the future won’t teach isolated, specific content around a singular career direction. In fact, successful education of the future won’t ‘teach’ at all. It will facilitate collaboration, real world activities, critical thinking, lateral thought across different business units, adaptability and seamless, confident communication. The days of a lecturer standing in front of the class talking for an hour are over – or should be. The days of primarily using an exam as a key indicator of subject mastery and future success should also be over.

Employers’ hiring decisions in the future will be based primarily on skill, attitude and competence rather than qualification. In fact, this is already happening in many regards. For future graduates, it’s all going to be about competencies. Education of the future needs to enable how to do rather than teach what to know.

Even if universities do become free, which is unlikely, I believe that in the next decade or two it’s within the private sector of education where the consistent quality of graduates will lead the private providers to attain greater reputations than even the leading names such as UCT and WITS. The matriculant of 10 years from now may have a clear choice: Go to university cheaply for a qualification rooted theoretical knowledge, removed from industry and pragmatism – a qualification which won’t guarantee anything. Or pay a leading private provider for relevance, work readiness, competence . . . and ultimately a job.


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